That childhood urge to ask ‘how’ and ‘why’ usually fades. But we can all learn to rediscover the joys of wide-eyed discovery. Humans grow up with a powerful drive to learn how things work and why certain patterns and properties exist in the world. Wonder, a word with multiple related meanings, has one sense that captures this desire to know. You employ wonder when you ask questions such as ‘How do fish breathe underwater?’ or ‘Why do air conditioners drip water?’ Wonder, as I describe it here, is more than the sort of curiosity that motivates someone to seek a simple factual answer (eg, ‘What is the biggest kind of dog?’) Wonder moves someone to seek out explanations – especially about the patterns of cause and effect that underlie phenomena. It is also different from awe, which can occur as a more passive state of amazement. Wonder involves active thought and engagement. It invokes conjectures about ‘how’ and ‘why’. It might even launch speculations about different possible worlds. Wonder motivates targeted explorations and discoveries.
In its most mature forms – in adults who have flourished as lifelong wonderers – wonder promotes sustained excavation of the rich causal architectures of the world. It helps us to appreciate everything around us more fully. We come to see a more richly textured and dynamic reality. For example, through wondering and learning about how and why songbirds sing, how the first flowers break through frozen ground, and how animals hibernate, we come to see and experience the first days of spring in more immersive and rewarding ways. Each instance of wondering in turn launches a branching network of new instances and opens a door to the potentially endless joy of successive discoveries.
Wonder commonly declines with age – but it doesn’t have to
Around the time children enter classrooms, their spontaneous questions seem to plummet. Even worse, this abandonment of wonder can persist indefinitely. This decline happens at all levels of affluence and across diverse groups and cultures, leading some to worry that it is inevitable. Yet some people remain lifelong, joyful wonderers. What makes them able to sustain their wonder? We can regain and maintain wonder in adulthood. We might even help young people hold on to theirs. Gaining insights through wondering is not some kind of rarefied ability that is off-limits to most people. Its presence in young children shows how intrinsic it is to be human. And wonder can continue to grow and expand for a lifetime. Young people quickly grasp that uncovering how something works is especially rewarding. An intrinsic joy is at the heart of what makes this happen. All of us should experience the pleasures of learning through wonder every day of our lives. Here are practical strategies that can help you revive your wonder and maintain it at levels that become so rewarding that they are self-sustaining:
1. Conduct Regular Introspections
Ask yourself: have you learned anything new in the past month that has changed how you view or understand some aspect of the world? This might include learning important new facts or realizing that you were mistaken in some way about a prior view. Think about these updates in your understanding as opportunities that enable you to see the world more clearly. It would be the ultimate form of hubris to assume that one already understands everything just right. Uncovering pockets of ignorance or misunderstanding and gaining new insights can feel invigorating. Leading scientists freely admit not knowing as a primary reason for conducting research, and you can follow their lead.
You can begin to embrace this spirit of seeking new understanding by making a point of pausing on the first day of every month and asking what new insights you have recently gained or what misunderstandings you have resolved. When you identify an instance, think about what has changed in your mind and what new lines of inquiry have been revealed as a result of this change. Almost always, you will have several novel things to explore. If nothing comes to mind during your introspection, take a few minutes to reflect on what is around you.
Even at such early stages of wondering about a new topic, you quickly come to look at the object of your wonder differently and experience it more deeply. To find out more, you might start searching for answers online – or, if the right search phrase or source of information is not obvious, you might ask a friend who is knowledgeable about the subject how they suggest learning more. That discussion could in turn lead to a visit to your local library or perhaps to an expert in your community.
2. Embrace The Proliferation of Wonder
When you wonder, try to approach a question with the expectation that you are just taking the first step in what might turn out to be many possible cycles or branching paths of wondering, each one triggered by what you learn in response to the prior question.
The natural world and the world of technology are both full of complex, nested systems. Consider the components of a car and how each of these (engine, brakes, transmission, etc) has its own complexities and internal parts with additional complexities. What this means is that you should be on the lookout for what new ‘wriggling worms’ appear when you overturn your first rock of inquiry through wondering. For example, if you find out that slime molds can solve mazes and wonder how that happens, then learn that they leave behind slime trails as a form of ‘external memory’, you might immediately start asking how they ‘read’ such trails and use them.
3. Adopt Diverse Ways of Wondering
You can experience extra pleasure in information foraging when you discover a new way of learning more. Alternatives to the standard search engine query, as helpful as that can be, might include seeking out YouTube videos created by experts or visiting online forums such as Reddit. You could also explore lectures or other educational events at nearby science museums or colleges. Do not feel shy about asking experts you meet to help you understand a subject. While some experts might not want to explain things to a novice, many, including those who are leaders in their field, are thrilled to share their excitement and help you see why they have devoted so much of their life to a topic. Even some doctors, despite crushing schedules, might still be happy to have a patient who becomes more of an intellectual partner in understanding what is going on. Emails out of the blue to experts you haven’t met might not always work because of the sheer volume they receive, but it is often quite easy to approach an expert after a talk or other event.
The more you approach a topic from different vantage points and perspectives, the more you start to see the phenomenon under investigation emerge in all its beauty and complexity.
4. Look for Anomalies and Puzzles
Wonder will often go into high gear when you are confronted with an apparent anomaly or puzzle. Sometimes, people ignore anomalies as annoying exceptions to a simple explanatory story that they have in mind. But very often an anomaly can be extremely revealing and cause a revamping of your understanding. For instance, you might notice that a particular tree in your town loses its leaves much earlier than all others. At first, you just ignore the anomaly, but when you eventually decide to look up why this might be the case, you learn that trees often lose their leaves earlier when they are stressed by poor soil conditions or a toxic substance. You now better appreciate how trees provide information about the quality of the local environment.
If you stop and try to explain to yourself or others how various ordinary things work, you might find that there are gaps in your understanding – whether it is your grasp of how a flush toilet works or how the heart pumps blood. When you stumble upon such gaps, appreciate that you have just uncovered an opportunity to unleash wonder and to explore why something works the way it does.
5. Explore Contrasting Cases
A range of studies has shown the value of contrasting cases for learning more deeply about a topic. For example, your understanding of the concept of mammals will likely deepen after you compare various pairs of mammals and consider the commonalities and differences between them. You might also wonder about the similarities and differences between two related concepts in psychology or another field – concepts such as ‘extrinsic motivation’ and ‘intrinsic motivation’ – and by contrasting them, learn more about a larger topic (eg, motivation) and how experts think about it.
6. Entertain Counterfactuals
Wonder is most powerful when it uncovers the causal structures that lie beneath and are responsible for surface phenomena. These structures often include elaborate and extensive branches, so that each ‘how’ or ‘why’ question can launch a cascade of follow-up questions. Many recent studies show that posing counterfactual questions is an excellent way to peel away appearances to see the workings underneath. In asking such questions, you provide fuel for wonder. For example, you might ask: ‘What would the world be like if water contracted when it froze (like most liquids) rather than expanded?’ If you think it through on your own, and then consult some sources, you might be astonished to learn just how important that very unusual feature of water is. Indeed, some experts believe this property of water is essential to life on Earth. To grasp such claims fully, you will find yourself coming up with a number of follow-up questions.
How do you know what to counterfactualise? It is much more interesting to wonder what transportation would be like if the speed of light was 100 miles per hour than to wonder what it would be like if all-wheeled vehicles had blue wheels. Why is one counterfactual so much more interesting? It has to do with the ramifications of changing such an important property as the speed of light. If you engage in counterfactual exercises regularly, you will develop a better sense of the sorts of what-if questions that are likely to be most revealing. But most of us know right from the start that some attributes of the world are more interesting to imagine transforming than others.
7. Practice Win-Win Wondering With Others
One way to reawaken wonder lies in your interactions with others. Many adults see arguments as aversive battles with the goal of conquering the other with your point of view. But this ‘argue to win’ perspective neglects the opportunity that disagreements offer for expanding wonder. To take advantage of this, we need to adopt an ‘argue to learn’ mindset.
Can you think back to an argument when everyone exchanged views with no fear of ‘losing’? When getting closer to the truth, not winning, was the focus, and all sides made positive contributions? All too often we can fall into a zero-sum framing of disagreements when in fact win-win encounters are also possible – and are more rewarding for all parties. The next time you find yourself disagreeing with a friend, try to embrace that disagreement as an opportunity to learn and communicate. Let your friend know that you want to argue in good faith and that you would be delighted to have your mind changed as you can learn more that way. Following through on this commitment to learning almost invariably involves asking ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions. There are other simple ways to promote arguing to learn. One of the easiest is to have arguments with another person without an audience, and with an agreement that the details of who knew what at the beginning of the conversation are of no concern to anyone else.
8. Create a Checklist For Wondering
Checklists can be surprisingly useful for helping you engage effectively in a variety of desired activities – including wondering. Suppose you wonder about the costs and benefits of a particular public health intervention. Given that emotions can bias how we approach and value information, you might be especially vigilant by using a checklist with items such as the following:
- Did I consult at least three different sources? Did I make sure those three didn’t all get their information from one common source?
- Did I check the reputation of my sources by looking at their affiliations, their training, and other indicators that they are respected for the quality of their views?
- Did the sources actually discuss any mechanisms involved (eg, how a vaccine works) in more than a hand-waving manner? Or did they rely more on personal anecdotes or opinions? Badly informed sources rarely dive deeply into mechanisms.
Depending on the subject of your wondering, the checklist might include different items. For instance, your checklist could ensure that you are taking into account your own cognitive biases, such as the tendency to seek out information that confirms your beliefs and to neglect information that challenges it. If these checks sound difficult, with a little practice, you’ll find that they are often surprisingly easy to do and can become automatic.
To foster more moments of wonder, upon encountering a new phenomenon that is puzzling, you might check how often you pursued the topic with a number of ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions instead of just seeking a simple answer. The more you engage in wondering, the more you will ask why you haven’t wondered more in the past. Wondering deeply is one of the few activities in life in which you can acquire something of great value at little or no material cost – something that can continuously enrich how you experience the world going forward.